Mark Wallinger and I.



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Mark Wallinger is one of the original YBA artists. A group of young British artists supported by Charles Saatchi who came to dominate the British art scene in the 1990s. The poster boy for the movement is Damian Hirst and they transitioned to popular culture through the seminal exhibition Sensation at the Tate.

Wallinger has won the Turner prize, represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and his sculpture of a be-thorned Jesus Christ, Ecce Homo, was selected as the first sculpture for the much-loved Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The artist has been playing with the idea of the self-portrait for some time. In 2007 he began a series of self-portraits that took as their subject matter the painted letter ‘I’. In this ongoing body of work Wallinger amused himself by toying with the vanity at the heart of the self portrait. He painted the letter with great formality on canvas, a medium with a rich heritage of self-promotion and propaganda.

By painting the letter instead of his own form Wallinger reduces his individuality to something as mundane and over used as the personal pronoun. He highlights how prosaic are our concerns and how pedestrian we human beings are, a timely reminder in this era of social media and common self-aggrandizement.

Mark Wallinger’s new body of work, now showing at Hauser and Wirth in London, takes this idea of the self-portrait yet further. Based on the Rorschach test images, Wallinger displays a fantastic skill with paint in these works that represent the Freudian tripartite concept of the Self as Id: instinct, Ego: mediator and Super Ego: moralizer.

Inspired by the wild and instinctive nature of the Id, Wallinger applies the paint free hand using symmetrical gestures to ape the Rorschach imagery. The paintings are composed according to his arm-span and by doubling his height, in essence they are a physical imprint of the artist himself.

Once again Wallinger succeeds by inspiring the viewer to consider himself and his image. The intricate lattices of the artist’s instinctive gestures provide a lexicon of imagery for reflection and self-analysis. Yet despite the cerebral nature of the works, the monumental images have a sublime quality. The symmetry and apparent simplicity of the monochromatic paintings create an aura of tranquility in the gallery space, providing a haven from the bustle of Regent Street a few meters away.

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John Akomfrah’s – Auto Da Fe



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I was deeply moved by John Akomfrah’s video work Auto Da Fe [Acts of Faith] showing at Lisson Gallery in March 2016.

The Ghanaian born British artist is acclaimed as an artist, curator and documentary film-maker and has “secured a reputation as one of the UK’s most pioneering film-makers. The 58-year- old’s poetic works have grappled with race, identity and post-colonial attitudes for over three decades… In 1982 he formed the Black Audio Film Collective, one of the first groups to challenge how the black British community were represented on screen and in the media.” Hannah Ellis Peterson, the Guardian, 7 January 2016.

Akomfrah’s awareness of politics and racial identity began at birth. His parents were heavily involved in the anti-colonial movement in Ghana and engaged in the struggle that led to the coup in the 1960s when his family was forced to flee Ghana in fear of his mother’s life.

The mood that greeted the Akmofrah family in London was one of discontent. The first major influx of migrant workers to England was from Jamaica in 1948 when jobs were short in the Caribbean following the Second World War and Britain required rebuilding after the Blitz. By the 1960s many more immigrants of Asian and African descent had arrived and the atmosphere was tense with animosity. As ever, the question of employment at a time of lack caused conflict. Landing in London from Africa when Britain was struggling to come to terms with multiculturalism and immigration cannot have been easy.

The family’s arrival coincided with the Conservative minister Enoch Powell’s 1968 so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he addressed issues of immigration by saying “as I look ahead I am filled with foreboding, like the Roman I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’” and reflects contemporary public sentiment “the sense of alarm and of resentment lie not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come.” Enoch Powell, address to the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre, 20 th April 1968

It is not surprising that John Akomfrah has long been a champion of racial equality. The atmosphere of fear and mistrust surrounding immigration in 1960s Britain has strong parallels with the current situation in Europe. Auto Da Fe is a response to this, addressing the subject both intelligently and gracefully.

The two-channel video highlights the role religious migration has played in the development of the modern world by weaving together stories from eight different migrations. The 1654 migration of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil, the Huguenots in 18 th Century Brittany and the present day migrations of Christians from Mali and Iraq all feature.

The film is composed of gorgeous panoramic shots of nature, juxtaposed with decaying colonial architecture, slow moving portraits in contemporary clothing, rich fabrics, sandy beaches, plastic bags, shimmering seas, children’s toys drifting in the ocean, a bus stop, tropical leaves rustling…. These disparate images create a compelling narrative that is simultaneously discordant and harmonious whilst successfully conveying the major themes of discrimination and dispossession.

By assembling video footage that alludes rather than dictates, Akomfrah tells a challenging story of universal significance as the poetry of his images lulls the viewer.

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Strawberry Hill House



Strawberry Hill House is a confection of Victoriana in all its ridiculous sumptuousness.

Horace Walpole, author and son of Robert Walpole Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister, designed and built the place as his residence.

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It is notable for its architecture and loving restoration, but they have some way to go before it is restored to a level that can fully evoke its past glory. The rooms are bare of furniture, paintings or hangings and much is left to the imagination, but they have spent vast sums on a lurid purple paint with which they have enthusiastically slathered the bedroom walls. Apparently this is true to the original exotic taste of Mr Walpole.

That said, the architectural features are really something and have been returned to their original splendour, with gilded ceilings and doorways, and delicately carved wooden trellises and stairways in abundance.
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Numerous fantastically geeky voluntary tour guides make valiant attempts to answer every question and enthusiastically monitor every visitor, never allowing anyone to be left alone in a room, just in case they might be tempted to steal a fireplace.

Of particular note is the fine stained glass. Horace Walpole painstakingly collected hundreds of pieces of ‘painted’ glass during his tours abroad which were then amalgamated into delightful collages for his castle windows. There are historical portraits of English kings, skilled craftsmen, botany, birds and animals, landscapes and heraldic devices.

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Horace was obviously a snob. He had included a sliding panel in the door of The Plaid Bedchamber and an iron-barred gate to The Tribune Room through which lesser guests could view his treasures without sullying his pristine house.

He also seems to have been something of a pervert, judging from the placement of an enormous double bed in the middle of one of his reception rooms…

Eccentricities aside, Horace designed and built a splendid property that captures the essence of Gothic Revival beautifully. The Trust that funds it has done a great job in restoring the framework given that it was entirely derelict, but I would wait until they have reacquired the furnishings and paintings before making the trip to Twickenham.

Japan



As some of you may know I have just come back from Japan.

Having built up a series of impressions of Japan and the Japanese from movies like Lost in Translation, classic animes like Princess Mononoke and Fist of the Northstar, Kurasawa’s epic Seven Samurai; and the often bizarre written works of authors Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Kazuo Ishiguro I had a confused and totally misinformed idea of the place.

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First of all the Japanese are not nearly as aloof and – dare I say it – weird as they are portrayed. That is not to say they don’t have their idiosyncrasies, but it is these very differences that makes Japanese culture so captivating, endearing and, probably, enduring.

The most compelling aspect of Japanese culture from my point of view is its universal sense and implementation of design concepts. It seems to me that the Japanese are the only race (except maybe the Danes?) that still value and apply the rule of form as well as function. Making it both a visually stimulating and far more efficient culture.

There are studies being conducted in Europe right now (led by the Danes incidentally) that have finally reached the conclusion that the nation of Japan practices as a lifestyle: design can add value to the economic landscape by improving the efficiency of services, infrastructure and industrial production, and by expediting policy; thereby improving the health and happiness of the nation, which leads to everyone working hard and reinvesting in the economy: Boom.

This is how I break it down: design makes you happier because every thing is easy and everything is beautiful.

Let’s think about this in terms of say, trains:

Q. How late is the bullet train?

A. Never. Ok, ok, an average of 14 seconds in an entire year, what more do you want?

Q. How good does it look?

A. Futuristic: Ice-cool.

Q. How smooth is it?

A. “Are we moving? I hadn’t noticed.” (see 4 Weddings & A Funeral.)

Q. How comfortable is it?

A. Very. There is a spacious foot well, a foot-rest, a generous sized table and a winged chair-back for added comfort.

Q. How good are the snacks?

A. Plentiful, high quality with healthy options, and it comes to your seat after every stop.

Q. How clean is it?

A. Spotless. An entire team sanitize the train after each journey.

Q. How polite are the staff?

A. They are so polite they even bow to the doors.

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Now let’s talk about British Rail:

Q. In general how often are British trains delayed?

A. All the time. Once I was stuck on a Great Western Railway train for 8 hours.

That would never happen in Japan.

Q. How good does it look?

A. Thomas the Tank Engine: fail.

Q. How smooth is it?

A. You can’t even walk down the length of your own carriage without falling in somebody’s lap, probably a big fat sweaty man who will make lewd remarks.

A Japanese man would be neither fat, nor sweaty, nor would he make lewd remarks.

Q. How comfortable is it?

A. Granted the seats are alright, but they certainly don’t have foot rests, and the tables are too small, and if you are in a cluster of 4 seats with a central table you have to dominate everyone else in a complicated game of footsy whereby the Alpha keeps their foot in the prime location and refuses to make way for the Betas until they just give up and wallow in pedestrian misery.

Q. How good are the snacks?

A. You have to stagger up eight carriages, jabbing your hip into seat backs and grabbing onto people to steady yourself – thanks to the jerking motion of the train – in order to reach an ingenuously entitled ‘restaurant’ car, tastelessly decorated in dreary grey linoleum, where you pick up a wet cheddar and pickle sandwich, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and a watery tea for a 300% mark up. Then, stagger all the way back, spilling your tea on a man travelling with a rottweiler and get into a fight.

At which point you then have to re-dominate your foot-well.

Jesus Christ, I’m tired just thinking about it.

Q. How clean is it?

A. The loos absolute reek of urine. And once, on the way to Brighton, I found a bra stuffed down the toilet.

Q. How polite are the staff?

A. Rude. Especially if you have lost your ticket and only have the receipt stub as proof of purchase, at which time they positively relish humiliating you in front of the rest of the carriage, making you buy a new ticket (when you’ve already bought one) and pay a fine.

So, let’s conclude:

On a scale of 1-10 how happy are we at the end of a Japanese train journey? (Unless there has been an earthquake, a nuclear disaster or typhoon)

Serene, nourished and ready for the day: 9

(N.B I give it a 9 because 10 is ecstasy and trains can only make you so happy.)

On a scale of 1-10 how happy are we at the end of a British train journey?

Stressed out, vaguely disgusted and hungry: 1.

Apart from the incredible efficiency of its public transport system, the Japanese take great pride in the detail, that is to say: the appearance of things. This is where the other aspect of design comes into play.

A lot of text has been written about the emotional and cognitive impact of the environment on human beings. Gestalt theory posits that our brain receives so much visual stimulation that it automatically finds the simplest solution to the problem, thus grouping items together that have certain characteristics. That is why we like symmetry over diversity.

I like to think of this as the ‘superficial b*tch’ theory, whereby you choose the good-looking person over the ugly one because their face is more symmetrical.

Anyway, the Japanese have positively nailed this theory.

Market stalls and shop shelves are artistically decorated with beautifully laid out fish and vegetables and brightly coloured boxes of cereals. Mushrooms are artfully nestled in little punnetts of grass. The trees that line the streets are groomed to represent the very apex of tree-dom without sacrificing their natural tree-ness.

treesThe ultimate example of this?

The Zen Garden…. Aaaahhh… relaaaaaxxxxxx…..

Go there.

You will be a happier, better version of yourself.

And you probably will live longer.

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Middle Eastern Art at the Fair



ArtInternational had a fair few galleries representing middle-eastern artists and so this is a blog themed around their works. By middle-eastern I mean artists originating from North Africa, the central Arab lands, and Iran.

Athr Gallery from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a staple at international art fairs. Athr has been building their artists slowly and steadily since they opened in 2009. They represented a strong selection of Saudi artists at ArtInternational with several works, including a sculpture by Siddiq Wasel in the outdoor sculpture section on the banks of the Bosphorus and an eye catching metal installation by Musaed al Hulis in the booth.

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Musaed al Hulis

In this work al Hulis utilised metal link, chain and locks to create a carpet-like installation through which he comments on two main themes: lack of interfaith and cultural communication, and the hollow manner in which many perform religious rites and rituals. In so doing he looks to a future of greater understanding and spiritual consciousness.

Athr also exhibited the celebrated Ahmed Mater with his photograph of a black magnetic cube at the centre of a ring of iron filings, referencing the pull of Makkah; the spiritual epicentre of the Islamic faith.

Mater is also represented by well-established Austrian gallery, Krinzinger. Krinzinger carried a set of photographs from his Yellow Cow series, documentation of a conceptually driven performance piece where Mater created a product-line of Yellow Cheese and Yellow Milk around an imaginary yellow cow. He went so far as to design bright yellow packaging, bright yellow shelving and a bright yellow shop for his Yellow Cow products.

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

This buttercup-coloured cow with her gloriously sunny flanks entices the consumer with the promise of a better, happier, more fulfilled life; but this promise is empty. By wrapping up the bounty of nature in paper, aluminum and cardboard we commercialise something nutritious, forget its essence and desire it for its appearance and the aspirational message of its advertising campaign. In this piece, Mater attempts to bring us back to the source.

Kader Attia

Kader Attia

Krinzinger also carried the work of Kader Attia, a French artist of Algerian origin. Attia is a conceptual artist of renown and his works are in international museum collections including MOMA. In his Repaired Mirror series, Attia plays on the Italian artist Pistoletto’s trick of utilizing the mirror to encourage the interaction of the viewer with the artwork itself. By reflecting his appearance the viewer is no longer a divorced voyeur and critic because he becomes a part of the art work.

Attia takes a broken mirror and ‘sews’ it back together with a copper ‘thread’. The mirror becomes a metaphor for the human psyche, referring to the wounds we all carry. Attia acknowledges that we may have moved on from our suffering, but the scars are still there. It is a poignant work with universal relevance.

Aya Haidar at Bischoff Weiss

Aya Haidar at Bischoff Weiss

London based Bischoff Weiss carried the works of Aya Haidar, a Lebanese artist raised in London who prints images of locations around the world. In this case Haidar printed images of Jeddah’s old town onto linen and embroidered them with brightly coloured thread. In embroidering over the doorways and mashrabiyyas, the artist symbolically removes an obstacle – both physical and metaphorical – and looks to a world with less restrictions and boundaries.

Leila Heller carried a set of drawings by the Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi. Shiva’s large-scale paintings have established her internationally, indeed one such painting has been acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. Shiva draws on an Islamic aesthetic with elongated figures derived from Safavid miniature painting. She marries this with Bosch-like vignettes of corruption and degeneration depicting despotic governors and witless servants, characters that the artist identifies with both east and west.

 

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Shiva Ahmadi and Leila Heller Gallery

Lawrie Shabibi came to the fair with artwork by a number of middle-eastern artists including Larissa Sansour, a hyper political artist of Palestinian origin who studied in Copenhagen, New York and London. In the works on view she creates arrestingly weird compositions, such as a bright white Scandanavian-style office in one half of the frame contrasting with a fire-filled sky glowing above the Dome of the Rock in the other. Sansour references her cultural background by juxtaposing images of east and west within a digitally manipulated and printed mise-en-scene.

 

Larissa Sansour and Lawrie Shabibi

Larissa Sansour and Lawrie Shabibi

 

Wendi Norris, who has also participated at Art Dubai, came all the way from San Francisco with the work of Shirin Guirguis. Guirguis is an Egyptian artist based in LA who works with intricate hand-cut paper works of Islamic motifs over-painted with abstract designs. She also works with wood to create sculptures that contemporise Islamic geometry. Guirguis’ work is current in its minimalism and she skillfully reanimates an ancient design concept for the twenty-first century.

“Sherin Guirguis’ work has been extremely well-received in Istanbul and the entire MENASA region.  She blends the sophisticated hand-crafted elements of her Egyptian heritage with an intelligent, Californian sense of minimalism.”

Wendi Norris

Sherin Guirguis

Sherin Guirguis

 

All these artists have lived their own lives and had their own experiences in different countries with different domestic, political and cultural norms. Frankly grouping them as middle-eastern artists is wrong: we are all citizens of the world. However, for thematic ease I have sacrificed egalitarianism and have grouped them by an accident of their birth.

My personal observation is that there are recognizable themes that recur in the work of middle-eastern artists, these themes are: identity, liminality and politics. That said these themes also appear in international artist’s work. In fact the topic requires a doctoral thesis, but the above will have to do for now.

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© Copyright Madder Red By Dalya Islam 2014. By DESIGN45